Choice and Change: How to Close the Gender Gap

Release Date
August 21, 2014


Poverty & Inequality Rights

What holds women back from achieving the same level and consistency of success in the workplace as men? Discrimination, culture, and access to education are all factors which need to be addressed – but they aren’t the whole story. What’s often left out of this important discussion is an examination of the choices that men and women make for their lives. While discrimination should be fought against at every turn, Professor Lauren Hall argues that we have to look at the full scope of the story.

Do male professors work even less on leave?
Are women in the U.S. more likely to be CEOs in than other countries with more generous leave policies?
Find out what constitutes “long” and “short” term maternity leaves.

What stops women from becoming CEOs, politicians, and surgeons at the same rate that men do?
Some reasons include overt discrimination, subtle cultural factors, and discouragement of girls from studying math and science. Those factors absolutely need to be addressed, but they’re not the whole story. An important explanation for this disparity that doesn’t get as much attention is the differences between choices men and women make about their educations, careers, and family life.
To give an example, a recent study attempted to answer why there are so few female politicians in the US by asking successful women why they wouldn’t run for public office. While the study found some important institutional barriers were partly to blame, it also found that women’s preferences played a huge role in the decision to run for office. The women cited the potentially devastating loss of privacy, the pressure of constant fundraising, the threat of compromising one’s principles, and the long hours away from their families. The study found that women, on average, are less willing to make the sacrifices necessary for grueling political careers. And the women who do enter politics often do so later in life when their children are older and the toll on family is not as great.
These women are making the choices on how to balance work, family, and public service that are right for them. It’s hard to fault them for that even if we’d like to see more women in politics. And, as an aside, it turns out most men don’t want to run for office either citing precisely those same concerns.
One way to increase female workforce participation is to have men perform a larger share of household and child rearing duties. Stay-at-home dads are becoming more common and it’s been shown that even a modest increase in a man’s contribution to child care and housework duties actually helps women balance their work and family obligations.
This is a great development, but as I’ve discussed elsewhere it’s hard to encourage these kinds of cultural changes through policy. Top down rules like mandatory paternity leave can actually backfire. In the end, decisions about how to parcel out household duties can only realistically be made at the individual and family level where people can take their particular desires, needs, and abilities into account.
It’s not as simple as saying men should do more at home because such changes require cultural and individual shifts that can’t be mandated from above. Additionally, given the choice there are many women who would still choose to spend more time at home. The desire to spend time with their kids may trump career ambitions, and for the women who feel this way having a partner stay at home instead wouldn’t make them any happier or more fulfilled. By questioning their preferences here, we actually undermine women as rational agents.
One way to address this is for businesses to give employees more flexibility in the hours they work and the locations they work from. This would allow people to more effectively balance their home lives and their careers. So to attract talented candidates, industries may want to rethink grueling work hours, or conditions that prevent people of both sexes from maintaining a work/life balance – like Google, for example, has done. But such proposals are limited by the realities of some professions. Surgeons can’t work from home, and politicians must spend time with their constituents and their colleagues. And like other kinds of change, these policies can’t be mandated without causing unintended consequences. Ultimately, you can’t make every career compatible with a robust family life. It’s not just women who can’t ‘have it all’ in that respect. No one can.
We all face difficult choices in life. While we should fight prejudice wherever it persists and encourage women to pursue male dominated majors, jobs, and leadership positons, there will still be many women – and men – who will choose differently. And that’s okay. Some people are comfortable working longer hours in exchange for higher pay. Others prefer careers with more flexibility instead. Men and women should be empowered to choose lives that meet their own standard of flourishing, not the standards chosen by others.
Supporting human freedom means supporting the freedom of diverse individuals to choose the lives they believe to be the most fulfilling, while eliminating official barriers wherever we can.
In case you missed it, watch my other video to learn why mandates won’t fix the problem of gender inequality.